2020 Toyota Camry TRD and Avalon TRD First Drive Review: Who Are You Calling Boring?

Trying to build street cred, one stiffened damper at a time.

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2020 Toyota Camry TRD and Avalon TRD First Drive Review: Who Are You Calling Boring? © 2020 Toyota Camry TRD and Avalon TRD First Drive Review: Who Are You Calling Boring?

Sometimes it's easy to feel for Toyota. Despite spending a decade and billions of yen building one of the greatest V-10 supercars ever, being the only non-American mass automaker bar Maserati still selling naturally-aspirated V8 motors, and offering things like a Corolla with a rev-matching manual, the reborn Supra, and the tail-happy 86, there exists a set of folks who still write off Toyota as "boring."

Hoping to change those stubborn minds with some new enthusiast programming, the largest automaker in the world has introduced the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD and Toyota Avalon TRD—gussied-up, hunkered-down "performance" versions of its historically beige family sedans. So is this a cool new arc for Toyota in season 82, or has it done the impossible and jumped two sharks at once?

The 2020 Toyota Camry TRD, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $31,040
  • Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 | 301 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque | eight-speed automatic | front-wheel drive
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city | 31 mpg highway | 25 mpg combined
  • Curb Weight: 3,572 pounds

The 2020 Toyota Avalon TRD, By the Numbers

  • Base Price: $42,300
  • Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 | 301 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque | eight-speed automatic | front-wheel drive
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city | 31 mpg highway | 25 mpg combined
  • Curb Weight: 3,638 pounds
Toyota Avalon TRD, Toyota

Those assuming the Toyota Racing Development-tuned Camry and Avalon would come with more power will be disappointed because, well, they don't. Instead, the sedans get the same 301-hp 3.5-liter V6 already used in upmarket Camrys and all non-hybrid Avalons. No turbos, just the mainstream soundtrack of a free-breathing six. But the exclusive red-and-black exterior trim pieces aren't just for show—the cars also gain meatier-sounding catback exhausts and new TRD suspension components including track-tuned coil springs, shock absorbers, stabilizer bars, as well as thicker underbody braces for better torsional stiffness. Lastly, it's hard to miss that wing planted on the back of the Camry TRD.

Both are lowered 0.6 inches and slapped with front brakes that are nearly an inch larger in diameter than standard. Speaking of braking, pedal feel is tweaked to offer more feedback, and Toyota's Active Cornering Assist is in play to slow the inside wheel in a corner to combat understeer.

Toyota Camry TRD, Chris Tsui

Lastly, matte-finish 19-inch wheels measure a half-inch wider and cut unsprung weight on the TRD Camry and Avalon by a total of 12.4 and 18 pounds respectively. The success of the cosmetic changes will come down to personal taste; in our eyes, the tuner-esque splitters and spoilers look oddly appropriate given how aggro these two Toyota sedans have already become.

Essentially what we have here is an appearance, exhaust, and handling package. Borrowing from a classic Toyota advertisement, they "have stuff that guys like, like the rims and the sleekness to the body" and should be very "grounded to the ground" indeed. As for the mechanical tweaks, read on.

Toyota Avalon TRD, Toyota

Rideshare-Ready Athletes

Puttering around on the road like a sane human being, the handling differences between the vanilla cars and their TRD versions are apparent but not exactly night and day. Both the Camry TRD and Avalon TRD retain the standard cars' cruise-all-day-without-fatigue comfort, yet the overall demeanor is slightly less relaxed. In particular, the Avalon TRD trades the Touring model's sizeable-by-design on-center dead spot steering for a setup that's noticeably tighter and more responsive. Likewise, the Camry TRD takes the XSE's Uber and Lyft-certified compliant ride and unsurprisingly makes it firmer—though not uncomfortably so.

Toyota Camry TRD, Toyota

The TRDs here aren't quite rowdy enough to earn the cliched "evil twin" title in comparison to their base cars—though perhaps a twin who played more team sports growing up. Same genetics, same bones. Marginally more competitive attitudes.

Toyota Avalon TRD, Toyota

The R in TRD

While the TRD enhancements aren't a huge deal on the road, they really make themselves known once you set up a bunch of cones in a parking lot and start driving between them in anger. 

We already know the current Camry is an admirably decent handler (especially in contrast to its predecessors) but the TRD parts make the midsize sedan a genuine entertainer on the autocross. The Camry TRD's steering felt both lighter, quicker, and less laborious than the XSE. Body movements are a degree sharper; the chassis feels significantly more willing to rotate. By contrast, the XSE feels like somebody took the TRD version and caked a layer of mud all over the running gear.

Toyota Camry XSE and Avalon Touring, Chris Tsui

That TRD/non-TRD gulf is even bigger in the Avalon. Toyota pushed the envelope as far as it could with the new generation to avoid alienating the car's geriatric buyers, which is to say, not very far. To huck all 3,704 pounds of vanilla Avalon Touring through a tight autocross is to be reminded of the car's roots as a big ol' boat. It's not terrible at parking lot racing, all things considered, but the copious tire squeal and accompanying understeer makes it clear that autocross isn't its cup of tea. 

By contrast, the TRD eliminates those milquetoast manners and feels far more at home being tossed around. You can both hear and feel the brake-based Active Cornering Assist yanking the Avalon TRD into bends, and as a result body control is very much improved.

Toyota Camry TRD and Avalon TRD, Chris Tsui

That said, much of the TRD twins' autocross competence comes down to the platform itself. Toyota's new modular car architecture (TNGA) provides an incredibly solid base on which to build, both lighter and more rigid than preceding platforms. The TRD suspension, chassis, and steering enhancements simply iron out the remaining slop while adding a bit of aural flare.

Speaking of, those exhaust notes might just be our favorite part of the whole package. The TRD-designed, K&N-produced catback exhausts on both cars emit a refined, sports car-worthy sound that makes for more pleasurable listening than the racket produced by the 86's boxer four-cylinder. This might sound insane, but the sound is good enough that you'll want to roll down the windows in a tunnel and give it the business. Toyota hasn't messed with either sedan's interior sound deadening nor have they opted to crudely pipe in any artificial audio through either car's speakers. Au naturel, baby.

Toyota Camry TRD, Toyota

No, They Don't Come in Beige

Despite what you might've assumed, TRD isn't the most expensive trim for either the Camry or Avalon. At $31,040 for the Camry TRD, it's actually the cheapest way to get into 'Yota's mid-sizer with a V6, while the $42,300 Avalon TRD is essentially the same price as the Touring and almost a grand cheaper than a top-of-the-line Hybrid Limited.

Toyota Avalon TRD, Toyota

With annual production expected to be in the low-four digits for both vehicles, the 2020 Camry TRD and Avalon TRD are more statement cars for Toyota than anything else. By the textbook definition, would a "boring" manufacturer build family sedans that look this racy, sound like junior Jaguars, hold their own on the autocross course, and have seatbelts this red? No. But shaking off a long-held public perception takes more than a few sport-ish sedans, and these two cars likely won't satisfy the haters. These cars are interesting, even admirable in the face of current market trends, but they're not groundbreaking or revolutionary in any sense. 

Sometimes it really is easy to feel bad for Toyota—but then you remember that it expects to collect a profit of nearly $23 billion this year. The feeling goes away pretty quickly after that.

Toyota Camry TRD, Chris Tsui
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